Columbia Artists’ Sales Ranking: A Representative Sampling, 1919–1920
Compiled from the Original Columbia Files
by Allan Sutton
The following statistics provide some insight into who were Columbia’s best- and worst-selling artists of 1919–1920. Compiled from the company’s record-shipment sheets, they show average shipping figures for records that were released from June 1919 through May 1920 by selected artists. They represent the total number shipped; i.e., from time of release until time of deletion (the latter averaging about two-to-three years from release for these records).
It is important to note that these are the number of records shipped to distributors, not the number sold — actual sales statistics for these records are long-gone. Sales would have been somewhat less than the number shipped, since shipping figures do not reflect unsold copies exchanged or returned for credit (although those numbers likely would not have been large, due to strict limits the company placed on such transactions). And it is not known if these figures include review and other complimentary copies, which would not count as sales. Nevertheless, they provide a good gauge of relative sales, and of an artist’s relative popularity.
These figures put to rest any notion of rampant “million-sellers” in the early 1920s. Although Victor had several 1919–1920 releases that probably approached or even slightly surpassed that mark, Columbia (the nation’s second-largest label) did not. One of its top-selling releases for this period (A2895, coupling Ted Lewis’ “Bo-La-Bo” and the Kentucky Serenaders’ “Venetian Moon”) eventually shipped approximately 512,000 copies — and that’s more than double the total number shipped for the typical Columbia “hit” of the period. Total shipments in the 80,000–150,000 range were more the norm, and were still considered highly respectable.
This is just a preliminary survey (in preparation for what will be a detailed statistical analysis at some point), and one should not to jump to any far-reaching conclusions from a selective, one-year sampling. Some points to bear in mind:
- These figures do not reflect artists’ sales ranking during the full run of their Columbia tenure. Some, like Bert Williams, already had many substantial best-sellers behind them, and would have made a stronger showing here had those been included in the tally. Others, like Ted Lewis, were just getting started and would go on to rack up even more impressive figures than are shown here.
- These are average total shipments; shipments of individual releases could vary considerably. Individual Jolson releases during this period, for example, shipped anywhere from 70,705 to 283,004 copies over their life-span.
- Sales of the 1920 releases, in particular, were undermined by the start of a severe recession. Columbia’s average sales declined dramatically in 1921, and they remained depressed well into 1922. Generally, peak sales occurred for only a few months after release; thus, those records released in 1919 had already seen their biggest sales before the recession hit, while those released toward the middle of 1920 saw their sales cut short by the economic crisis. As a result, the figures for artists who are more heavily represented by 1920 than 1919 releases are skewed slightly downward.
- Columbia’s tendency to put different artists on each side of a record also has the potential to skew results. Some popular names (including Billy Murray, Arthur Fields, Charles Harrison, and Henry Burr) do not appear here because their records so often have other artists on the reverse sides, raising the question: Which artist’s side “sold” the disc? Shipment of these and similar artists’ Columbia releases generally hover around the 70,000–90,000 range for the period, but with many outliers on either end of the sales spectrum.
- Records by Al Jolson and some other major stars were coupled with lesser artists’ recordings during this period. In these cases, we’re assuming that it was the “star” side, and not the reverse-side filler, that sold the records. It seems highly likely, for example, that far more customers bought A2836 for Jolson’s Broadway hit, “You Ain’t Heard Nothin’ Yet,” than for Billy Murray’s “Come on and Play with Me,” a “dog” of a title if ever there was one. Therefore, that release is tallied with Jolson’s sales, not Murray’s.
- Some records by Fox, Fuller, Hickman, the Jockers Brothers, Jolson, and Stewart were heavily discounted to distributors during 1922–1923, as part of Columbia’s “59¢ Retired Record” clearance. This revived the sales of some records that otherwise had long-since reached the end of the line in terms of sales, adding another 1,000–5,000 copies to the final tally.
Average Total Shipments of Columbia Records
by Selected Artists
(June 1919 – May 1920 Releases)
Al Jolson • 208,258
Ted Lewis’ Jazz Band • 178,913
Columbia Saxophone Sextet • 173,836
Louisiana Five • 170,162
Art Hickman’s Orchestra • 150,245
Irving and/or Jack Kaufman • 146,729
Bert Williams • 134,984
Kalaluki Hawaiian Orchestra • 124,542
Nora Bayes • 123,567
Wilbur Sweatman’s Original Jazz Band • 121,174
Van & Schenck • 116,686
Fisk University Jubilee Quartet • 103,100
Cal Stewart • 101,904 *
Sascha Jacobsen • 94,235
Harry Fox • 89,001
Earl Fuller’s Rector Novelty Orchestra • 83,698
Jockers Brothers • 76,027
Oscar Seagle • 58,106
Louis Graveure • 34,731
Yvette Guilbert • 1,781
*Columbia’s release of multiple, previously unissued Stewart recordings soon after his death in December 1919 might account for this high figure. After an unusually strong showing in early 1920, sales of these records declined quickly and dramatically.
© 2021 by Allan R. Sutton. All rights are reserved.